Last night, Jaim Yong and Dorji dropped us at the hotel and left us to explore downtown Thimphu. After peering out at the main street from our hotel room window, we opted for the comfort of a warm room and a shower. After supper we went to bed early. I know….B O R I N G !
Today we are fit for exploring Thimphu and Jaim Yong and Dorji are here early.
Thimphu is the capital and largest city in Bhutan. There are about 100,000 people living in the Thimphu District and most of them are in the city itself. The city fills a lot of the Wang Chuu valley that sits well over a mile high. The climate is temperate. Thimphu’s main connection to the outside world is through the Paro Airport that is 54 kilometres away.
On the surrounding mountains there is a ring of monasteries, perched on rocky outcropping. They gaze protectively down on the valley below.
In my experience, capital cities usually reflect what is important in a country and Thimphu is no exception. It has exceptional architecture, museums that speak to the past and inform the future, government buildings and ministries that have a commitment to democracy and environmental protection. People are important here so education, health and happiness are high on the political agenda. Health care is free and integrates both eastern and western thought. Education, which until the 1960’s was solely in the domain of the monasteries, is now available in all parts of the country. The Royal University of Bhutan was established in 2003 and primarily graduates Dzongkha teachers. As a cultural centre, Thimphu is also known for its Tsechu. This four-day festival, held in the autumn, is famous for its mask or Cham dances. These dances are performed by monks and trained dance groups. They honour the deeds of Padmasambahva.
Dorji knows this town. Clearly, if something is not up then it is down and he seems to zip us along with little hesitation.
On Doeboom Lam , near the Indian Military Hospital we stop at the Thimphu Chorten, built in 1974 to honour the 3rd King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorjii Wangchuck. It is situated in a park like setting where people and pigeons come to pray or just hang out. Somewhere I heard it referred to as a “senior’s daycare” as some of the elderly spend the day in prayer or helping out with the many things that need to be done to maintain the site.
The Chorten itself is towering. Unlike other chortens, it does not contain any mortal remains of, in this case, the King.
Men and women, mostly Bhutanese, circle the classically styled stupa in a clockwise direction all the time saying their prayers and counting their prayer beads… 108 for men, 100 for women. There are also boards upon which the worshippers prostrate themselves as they face the larger than life size images of the tantric deities, many of whom are in erotic poses.
Removed from the worshippers, a man feeds the pigeons and in another corner a red robed monk waits. In a building separate from the chorten and the temple, butter lamps flicker. Mammoth prayer wheels or mani are in constant motion as people move through their morning routine.
Back in the van, we head on to the roller coaster streets and begin to climb. Dorji pulls over so that Jaim Yong can point out the Tashichho Dzong and to its right, the National Assembly and the Samteling Palace, the residence of the King. The Palace is all but hidden in a grove of trees. It looks more like a series of cottages than a palace but this unobtrusiveness is the chosen way for the Royal family. The Dzong is large and built in the traditional white-washed style of others we have seen. Over the centuries it has sustained damage in fires and earthquakes and has required restoration and renovations. Here in Thimphu, the dzong is both a religious centre for lamas and an active administrative centre for civic government.
As I stand on the mountain roadside, the city fills the valley as far as my eyes can see. Through the mist, a mammoth Buddha, high on a far hillside, just catches the morning light. It is like a golden glow is emerging from it to fill the valley.
Up a slight grade, (all things are relative here) we pass under an entrance that leads to the Zilukha Nunnery. While we in the west (well east from here) worry about public safety and lobby for locked doors on public schools, there is no door, no security, not even a sleeping dog to greet us or fend us off as we walk onto the grounds of this sacred place. A nun is washing vegetables at a spigot as Jaim Yong herds us into the courtyard for the temple. An elderly grey haired nun sits by the temple entrance. The sound of chanting floats over the many shoes that have been left at the steps that lead inside. The temple itself is small and several nuns are praying. It is a place of quiet and calm enhanced by smiling faces and empowered by beliefs and practices.
I have had an interest in textiles for a long time and had been looking forward to a visit to the National Institute of Zorig Chusum, The School of Traditional Arts. The Bhutanese Government has a strong commitment to preserving the rich culture and traditions of Bhutan and is actively training artists so these ancient ways will not be lost. Each program is intensive and meticulous in its commitment to excellence. Teachers painstakingly correct the work of young artists so that the traditions will be accurately depicted or transcribed. Red pens get a lot of use here! The philosophy is clear…right is right and wrong needs to be corrected or the quality of a piece will be compromised due to its lack of accuracy. We watch young carvers striving for excellence in the re-creation of intricate details. In dim light, young girls complete silk embroidery projects. Art students bend over their work and squint. Class projects adorn the walls and teachers guide students through example as well as correction.
In a small room, in a country where electricity is a luxury, a young man sits on the floor and flips a switch to run an electric bellows. His job as a smithy, is to create the tools that the carvers and other craftspeople require. This seemed strange. In my colonial head, a manual foot bellows would have been the thing!
As luck will have it, the weaving teacher is away today and my hope of finding a traditional drop spindle is squashed. Not to be deterred however, I visit the Zangma Handicrafts Emporium that sells items made at the school and purchase a beautiful hand-woven silk scarf in dark navy and iridescent green.
The city of Thimphu holds the past in trust while it plans the future of the nation. At the Folk Heritage Museum, I wander through a traditional three-storey farmhouse with rammed mud walls, wooden doors and windows and a roof covered with slate. We pass a water driven grinder, butter churns, a rice flayer and winnowing baskets. The non-mechanized version of Bhutan is not much different from what I would see in Upper Canada Village or any other pioneer museum at home. The difference lies in the fact that in some parts of this country many of these methods are still in use.
On the second floor, the kitchen area abounds with clay pots and big cauldrons for use over the cooking fire. The fire has no chimney so the walls blacken but the room is the warmest in the house! Woven baskets and quivers fill shelves and sit in dusty corners. In another room there is a sleeping area where blankets were used to soften the hard floor and fend off the cold. In a separate area there is a temple room specifically for prayer.
But best of all, and because I seem to be fixated on toilets on this journey, there is a room with a little bench like structure made of wood that empties into a pipe-like channel on the outside of the building and then into a pit to feed the pigs! The cycle of life continues. Nothing is wasted.
We climb to a small but very old monastery on the top of a hill in the middle of a busy section of the city. Families bring their children here for a blessing if they are ill or couples come if they are infertile. They will roll the dice and if the outcome is not good three times in a row, they will pray, hoping for a change in fortune.
We lunch at the Bhutan Garden, a restaurant found by going down a rather grungy alley and up a flight of equally depressing stairs. Upon arrival, however, it is like entering a new world. Before us is a Japanese style restaurant with the prerequisite buffet and lots of tea.
The Takin is the national animal. The people of Bhutan believe that it was created from the head of a goat and the bones of a cow, sometime during the 15th century by Lama Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman. Because Buddhist beliefs do not allow for the confinement of animals, the Takin’s that were held at the old zoo were released. Unfortunately, they strayed into the streets of Thimphu and eventually the current preserve in the Motithang district of the city was created.
On the way to view this unusual animal we stop to chat with a local weaver. The young woman sits on her porch weaving on a back strap loom. Her scarves are beautiful as is her small child who sits shyly in her lap.
The Takins are indeed unusual. They are large and stocky animals with a deep chest, similar to Muskox. They have short legs, two-toed hooves and both male and female have horns that lie parallel to their heads. Their shaggy coat can be from a yellowish gray to black and they weigh in at between 400 and 600kg. Left to their own devices they live in forested valleys and have been found as high as 4500’. Their only predators are snow leopards and humans for their meat is considered to be a local delicacy despite the fact that they are protected.
At the Takin Preserve, the animals roam within a large fenced tract of land. To me their heads were moose like and their interest in humans was negligible.
As we descend into the valley again it is clear that this is a city on the move. There is a lot of construction going on. Bamboo scaffolding is everywhere. And I’m beginning to get the lay of the land here. My head tells me “ You have seen that park bench before! Oh yes, and the barbed wire. Wonder what that is all about?”
Dorji pulls into what looks to me to be the back of an apartment building. Jaim Yong heads up some steps towards several low cement buildings that from the outside are in a fairly bad state of repair. Dogs loll around the entrance to what appears to be the main structure. It’s not pretty and its not pristine but the atmosphere is friendly and as we wander through, the five or six employees of the paper factory seem to be enjoying their work. Near the door, a woman oversees a vat of soaking Daphne Tree bark. This material regenerates and therefore provides the key ingredient for eco-friendly paper. Inside, staff work in a watery environment to move the mash through the pressing and drying processes. A group of women chat as they pick materials from the mash that would produce imperfections in the final product. This is a labour intensive production process that produces fine sheets that are made into books. Other items are sold at the small store conveniently located across the parking lot.
Down near the stadium there is a row of stalls. This market was established by the Queen and only contains Bhutanese crafts. The weavings are spectacular. Finely woven jewel-toned silks lay side by side with handspun woolens. If one needs a penis key chain, this is the place to get it! CDs with traditional music, carved masks and religious paintings fill the shelves and line the walls.
As we make our way back to the hotel, we walk through Clock Tower Square where a monk obliges us and plays a long collapsible trumpet like those we have seen in the monasteries. (Good thing my suitcase is already full!) Then we navigate the broken pavement of the main street peering into shops as we go. Everything comes by truck from India, or by plane via Paro. Shops have what they have. If the weather is bad, they have very little. But my sense is the people of Bhutan are skilled at making do.
This day has gone quickly and we have only had an overview of a city that was just opened to tourism in 1962. There is much that we did not see including the Library, the Post Office, many more temples and the Textile Museum. Some of these will be on the itinerary for tomorrow before we start back to Paro but for now… its time for tea.